Dishin' That: If you need cell service, don't expect table service

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A favorite email du jour:

“Why do people think it’s permissible to talk on their cell phones throughout an entire dinner? Our monthly date night was ruined by a woman talking loudly for an hour, right next to me. This was in a place where the seating is too crowded as it is.” — Jason N., Scarborough.

Cell phone civility (or lack thereof) in restaurants is part of the technological wild, wild west we are all wagon-wheeling through. If people aren’t involved in phone conversations with someone miles away, their necks are bent at unnatural angles to text on cell phones placed in their laps. I’ve been on the serving end of three courses of a dinner without any any eye contact between the diners, or the diners and myself. It’s more common than not, and it isn’t just the whippersnappers.

Many restaurants have taken to posting signs and making notations on menus requesting diners to refrain from using cell phones. One bar I know has a designated smoking area, several feet away from the building, which doubles as the “Talk If You Must Cellphone Zone.” Neither tactic is effective.

A close friend in Boston was the recent target of a customer complaint because he politely refused to share the evening specials until three of eight people at a reserved table got off their cell phones. The big shot who complained told the owner the yackers were working on a big deal, and were just trying to do their jobs.

“Actually sir, so was your server,” the owner replied.

Luckily for my friend, the size of the group warranted an automatic gratuity, and by the time check presentation rolled around, the table had worked their way through a bottle of 20-year-old Barros tawny port.

I’ve asked around and consensus is that it isn’t out of line for a manager to approach a table and discreetly ask that cell phone conversations be held outside.

However, this will only be possible if the manager can somehow manage to make eye contact, or get a word in edgewise.

Peas & Q’s

Q — One of my favorite restaurants keeps inconsistent hours of operation. I think that’s bad for business and has pissed off a lot of regular customers. What do you think? — Mark M., Portland (a.k.a Thirsty on Tuesdays).

A — As a rule, restaurants have more credibility when posting and strictly adhering to set hours of operation. Any changes or modifications should be posted and widely shared as soon as possible. As for the reason for the change, it’s completely up to management to handle the damage control. Often, less is more, and no explanation aside from apologizing for the inconvenience is necessary.

The most diligent in staying open “no matter what” are corporate and chain operations serving even when tumbleweeds are rolling through the dining room each afternoon, or late at night. Payrolling even a skeleton crew, simply for the sake of doing so, becomes a costly decision.

Weather, seasonality, adjusting as a restaurant expands, and in the most severe circumstances, insufficient staffing, may make it necessary for an unplanned closing. Understandably, regular customers do not approve. But, the alternative could be poor service and an understaffed kitchen.

Restaurant managers are hired to make difficult decisions that must balance bottom-line profitability with customer satisfaction. Regular customers may have a fine feel for a favorite hot-spot, but the ultimate decision regarding profitability belongs to management. It’s often a thankless, no-win task when these decisions impact their personal credibility and the restaurant’s reputation.

There’s always more than meets the eye when a restaurant modifies hours of operation. No one is there for their health, and all employees from the manager mentioned on down the food chain want to make money.

So, yes, I agree changing hours or closing early on a regular basis is not a good thing and should be avoided. However, I’m hard pressed to believe it’s without a valid, business-based reason.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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